Piled Higher and Deeper

Piled Higher and Deeper

Infobox webcomic|
title = Piled Higher and Deeper

caption =
author = Jorge Cham
url = http://www.phdcomics.com
status = Three times a week
began = October 27, 1997
ended =
genre = Academia
ratings =

"Piled Higher and Deeper" (also known as "PhD Comics") is a newspaper and web comic strip written and drawn by Jorge Cham that follows the lives of several grad students. First published in the fall of 1997 when Cham was a grad student himself at Stanford, the strip deals with issues of life in graduate school, including the difficulties of scientific research, the perils of procrastination, the complex student-supervisor relationship and the endless search for free food. Cham continued the strip as an Instructor in mechanical engineering at Caltech, and now draws and gives talks about the strip full time.


"Piled Higher and Deeper" introduced its main characters early in its run, and their personalities have remained fairly constant during the strip's several years of publication. In the strip's first few seasons, the characters were clearly Stanford students, though the number of school-specific references and jokes has decreased since.

* The Nameless Hero – a graduate student in engineering, this protagonist has procrastinated through the entire strip without receiving a name. He does bear a striking resemblance to the comic strip author, Jorge Cham (at one point, Dee remarks that her brother has dreams of quitting grad school and becoming a cartoonist). Little is known about the hero's background, although early on Mike Slackenerny states that he knew the hero's older brother (who has since quit his PhD and gone on to work for a "Silicon Valley Company"). Also, he is seen playing with younger children at home during his winter vacation, [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=802] so he either has many younger siblings or a few cousins. He has been increasingly seen with a set group of friends (one may be named Mikkel) and seems, at least marginally, to be Prof. Smith's most favored graduate student.

* Dee – the hero's younger sister. She is an undergraduate student who has been seen taking the GRE. She also talks on her cellular telephone, eats quite a bit, and naps during class when she isn't doing something even more inappropriate, such as chatting or eating a full meal during a test. Dee once phones her "sister dearest", so the main character may have more than one sibling. Dee has a good male friend who she often spends time with and at one point hints that he may have romantic feelings for her. Like the main character, he has not yet been named.

* Michael Slackenerny – endlessly devious, remarkably clever and phenomenally lazy, Michael has been in graduate school for longer than anyone can remember (during one of his interviews it was strongly implied that he started grad school in the 80's), surviving on ramen and free food from various events on campus. He views grad school not as a place but as "a state of mind [...] preferably sleeping, which you are interrupting". [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=394] In the spring of 1998, he drove to Las Vegas with a seemingly foolproof plan to beat the blackjack tables, thereby winning enough money to solve Stanford's housing crisis. Instead, he returned with a wife, Jen, who remained an unseen character for some time. Jen became pregnant with their daughter Sophy and stayed that way for several years, constantly urging Michael to finish his thesis and graduate. Michael finally completed his doctoral defense in 2005 -- Jen goes into labor just before his presentation must begin -- but he does not finish writing his thesis until 2007. After submitting his dissertation, Mike is seen walking home and asking himself, "What now?" After a period of job-hunting, he was finally hired by Prof. Smith as a postdoc.

* Cecilia – an engineering student, Cecilia spent years refusing to admit that she was truly a geek at heart. Addicted to chocolate and cookies, she has long since taken enough classes and conducted enough research to graduate, but a mysterious psychological force keeps her in school. She states in her interview for Tajel's project that her father was a professor, a "great teacher", [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=209] something that may or may not be a motivation for her to go above and beyond (also, her choice of words indicates that her father may have died). During class, she wears deliberately frumpy clothes to discourage male interest, since the vast majority of her classmates are men. This strategy is not always successful — "Excuse me, female, will you marry me?" She has had two boyfriends in the course of the strip: David and Scott. Although she broke up with David relatively quickly, she seriously dated Scott, her crush in high school, for numerous strips; they recently broke up amicably. Cecilia sometimes accompanies Tajel to political rallies and the like. She was asked in 2006 by a professor to interview for a faculty position at a different location because "it's the only position you're not overqualified for" and "we hired one of their grad students, so, diplomatically, they owe us." Cecilia is currently getting over her breakup with the help of Tajel.

* Tajel – Cecilia's roommate, Tajel, is an anthropologist and the lone social scientist in the main cast. This implies that Tajel is also the only one who has ever gotten to leave the school (or even the laboratory basement) for any academic reason. She is a dedicated activist who frequently attends or organizes rallies. Her frustration with U.S. politics is exacerbated by her not being a United States citizen. She is conversant in Spanish.

* Dr. Khumalo – Tajel's boyfriend and a member of the Anthropology Department's faculty. Tajel mistakes him for a first-year grad student when they first meet.

* Professor Rivera – Tajel's adviser. He apparently takes a laid-back approach to being an adviser, being entirely clueless as to Tajel's research interests, progress, and sometimes even her name. Once he praised a draft of a paper that Tajel had written, three months after Tajel had already submitted the final paper on due date.

* Professor Smith – originally drawn so that his face was never seen, much like Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the early James Bond movies or Dr. Claw in "Inspector Gadget." Sometimes forgetful but often intimidating, Prof. Brian Smith advises Michael Slackenerny and the nameless hero in their research, taking credit for any output his lab actually produces. He also occasionally tries to "fit in" with his students, to humorous and awkward results. Smith also has a wife and two children, a daughter, Sadie, and a son.

* Professor Jones – Cecilia's research adviser; a typical graduate school professor, although seemingly older and kinder than Prof. Smith. He is clueless in giving Cecilia advice on non-research related topics such as her lovelife and future career; apparently the only reason he has time to see his wife is because he married his administrative assistant.

* Mariko – a Japanese student in the same research field as the hero, she visits Prof. Smith's lab in 1998. Smith assigns her to work with "whoever is lowest in the lab hierarchy", which turns out to be the hero. During her brief stay, she inspires in him a powerful unrequited affection, which he maintains for at least three years. She eventually quits her Ph.D. and starts her own company, at which the hero works for a brief stretch of time. She is still occasionally seen talking with the main character as he works, so her current status is somewhat murky.

* Gerard – a medieval Scandinavian cultural philosophy major, as well as the strip's newest "official" character. He was personally introduced to readers by Tajel, supposedly in response to numerous letters from Humanities majors requesting their own character, and was meant to provide jokes on "obscure manuscripts, dead languages, and being the lowest paid grads on campus. Also, political correctness!" Despite this, Gerard has only been shown once after his initial introduction, a joke on the obscurity and uselessness of his field.

In addition, the strip is populated with a variety of incidental characters: other professors, assorted anonymous students and so forth.


* The number π/2 frequently appears in the strip.
* Jorge Cham is referenced several times in the strip on various occasions, usually when a character mentions a relative or friend who is a cartoonist.


The title itself comes from an old joke about becoming a Ph.D., whereby it is explained that if one knows what "B.S." stands for (in this context, "bullshit"), then "M.S." stands for "More of the Same" (or "More Shit"), and "Ph.D." stands for "Piled Higher and Deeper".

One of Cham's recurring themes is to re-cast an item of popular culture in the grad-school milieu. Upon several occasions, the strip has included spoofs of popular movies, like " [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=138 The Thesis] " ("The Matrix"), " [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=158 Raiders of the Lost Dissertation] " ("Raiders of the Lost Ark") and " [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=440 I, Grad Student] " (a mixture of the book and movie "I, Robot"). In addition, Cham has parodied television programs like "The Jerry Springer Show," among others.

Jorge Cham has also parodied "Newton's laws of motion" as " [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=221 Newton's 3 Laws of Graduation] ". According to the strip these laws of graduation were superseded by Einstein's "Special Theory of Research Inactivity".

[http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=200 Another series of strips] takes up the modern debate about the proper use of the term "irony".

The strip has also included several adaptations of Shakespeare as well as several propaganda posters. Captions for the latter include "This man does research for "you!", "When you procrastinate... Someone is watching!" and "Women in grad school... Support your local female geek."

Jorge Cham has also released two song parodies, purportedly sung by Tajel, in MP3 format: [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=191 Closer to fine] (cf. Indigo Girls) and [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=194 Who will grade your work] ("Who Will Save Your Soul").


Three PhD comic books have been published so far and retail at around $12. The first book, "Piled Higher and Deeper: A graduate comic strip collection", contained production sketches and an afterword by Prof. Smith in addition to a collection of the comic strips and was first released in 2002.

The second volume is also known as "Piled Higher and Deeper: Life is tough and then you graduate" and was published in April 2005. It contains 6 strips not published online that explain what happens in Mike's thesis defense. It contains a foreword by Karl Marx, behind the scenes author notes and a graduate school board game.

The third book, "Scooped! The Third Piled Higher and Deeper Comic Strip Collection", was released May 2007. In addition to the normal comic strips it also contains "Tales from the Road", comics that detail Cham's experiences whilst giving his Power of Procrastination tour.

External links

* [http://www.phdcomics.com Official site] .



:"The following external links were last verified 1 September 2008."

* "Piled Higher and Deeper: A graduate comic strip collection" (2002), ISBN 0-9721695-0-4. The first five years, collected in book form.
* "Piled Higher and Deeper: Life is tough and then you graduate" (2005), ISBN 0-9721695-2-0.
* "Scooped! The Third Piled Higher and Deeper Comic Strip Collection" (2007), ISBN 0-9721695-3-9.
* Paul Smaglik. "You've got to laugh. . ." "Nature" 436 (August 2005) p. 745. [http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2005/050804/full/nj7051-745a.html doi: 10.1038/nj7051-745a] .
* Jamie Schuman. "Dawdling and doodling" "The Chronicle of Higher Education" 12 August 2005. [http://chronicle.com/chronicle/v51/5149guide.htm Available online] with subscription.

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